Nutrition Plan: Middle and Long Distance Sportive Events

In March I wrote a post on Race Nutrition Strategy; the basic message of the post was fuel up before the race, take solid food on during the race whilst you can, and the pace is low, then as the intensity builds switch to energy gels and plenty of energy drink.

However, for many readers of the blog, a Sportive event rather than a race will be the main focus of your season; that big ride will be what your training has been building up to all season, and will often be the biggest day on the bike. Although I race far more than I ride sportives now, many of my long training rides are similar in length and intensity to a middle or long distance sportive. In this post I look at the distinctly different kind of nutritional plan that I would adopt for a sportive or long ride, compared to a race situation.

Pre-Event Nutrition
What you put into your body in the lead up to any event is as important, if not more important, than what you take during the event. For the first few hours of the ride, it is the stores of energy and glycogen in your body that you will be running on, and it is vital to make sure these, as well as hydration, are addressed.

Firstly hydration: starting the day before the event, make sure that your body is fully hydrated; the easiest way to tell this, is that your urine should be a light yellow, definitely not dark orange! Hydrate by drinking plenty of water, avoiding alcohol and excess amounts of caffeine, and steering clear of fizzy drinks. Continue drinking plenty on the morning of the event, especially when travelling; a very effective way of ensuring hydration is using effervescent electrolyte tablets; such as the ElectroTabs from Maxifuel. These are low cost, and they provide you with all the essential salts that you need to avoid cramping caused by dehydration. The added benefit is that they also make water a bit more interesting, so encourage you to drink more!

The second item to address pre-event is food. The message here is very similar to fuelling up before a race: "The night before the event have a large carbohydrate rich meal; I usually aim for 180 grams of dried pasta for example, with chicken or tuna. Try to avoid spicy food that might upset your stomach or degrade your sleep, and try to avoid too many dairy products for the same reason. If you want to have a pudding with your meal the night before, then avoid the stodgy puddings; instead think about one of the puddings suggested in my blog: Cycling Puddings." The message is simple really; the night before, get in plenty of carbohydrate, a little bit of protein to ensure your muscles are in peak condition, and have nothing too adventurous, even if that nice Indian next to the hotel does look rather good!

On the morning of the event aim for a substantial breakfast 3-4 hours before the event start; breakfasts can be largely as normal, just super-sized! When I say normal, that is assuming you normally have cereal, porridge, yoghurt, fresh fruit and some coffee, not a big fry up! Fuel up on low GI foods like oats and wholegrain bread, and avoid the overly sugary cereals like SugarPuffs. Keep drinking as well; fruit juice is a good way to start pumping up your blood sugar, with fructose rather than the sucrose found in sugary cereals.

Making your way to the start, keep drinking and keep eating. A little and often is the key; don't stuff yourself, and give yourself a feeling of being bloated, just have a banana or an energy bar every hour leading up to the event.

The Main Event
It is during sportive events and long rides that my nutrition advice fundamentally differs from a race situation.  During a typical UK road race you are typically trying to pump your body full of as much sugar and instant energy as possible; with the objective of having that extra power when you need it. In a sportive event, often the objective is just to finish, and you are likely to be out on the bike for far longer than during a race. The key here then is sustainability.

Solid food - The first thing that I change on sportives is swapping the majority of the energy gels in my back pocket for solid food and energy bars. This is made easier in most sportive events because of the provisioned feed stations, which save you from even carrying bars and food around with you. My favourite bars at the moment are the Maxifuel ViperBoost Bars; the dark chocolate and cereal flavour is tasty, and is much like a normal cereal bar, yet it has the added benefit of containing a shot of caffeine and guarana, helping you to stay focussed for those technical descents and keep the muscles firing for the next climb. I intermix these bars with solid food that you can get on most good sportive stations like bananas, flapjack and oranges. The key message here is that when you are out on the bike for a long day, you cannot rely on pumping your body with just sugar; even the Pro's have sandwiches, cake and the like to keep them going when they are out all day. If you try to survive on energy gels you'll be feeling pretty rough at the end, and your digestive system won't thank you for it. Try to focus on eating more solid foods, saving those energy gels for towards the end of the event when levels are running low, and you really need a boost. 

Drink - Drinking high concentrate energy drink all day long can also have some rather unwanted effects on your stomach, so for sportive events and longer rides I also change my tack here slightly. On my bike I carry two bottles; one with water and two ElectroTabs in, the other with a 3:1 carbohydrate-protein mix in; such as Maxifuel RecoverMax. This combination means that on hot days you have something less sticky to drink with the ElectroTabs, but something that will keep you hydrated better than water. With the 3:1 mix, you also have a hydrating drink, but additionally you gain a small serving of protein per bottle, which can help to keep your muscles functioning all day long, and repair the minor tears and damage done through exertion.

The idea then is that in long all day events, don't rely on sugar in the form of energy gels and energy drink alone. Try to get some normal foods in at the feed stations, intermixed with energy bars. Stay hydrated with easy to drink fluids, and give your body a little protein to start the repair process early. When you do begin to feel your energy running low, by all means pump yourself up on a gel and a bottle of high-concentrate energy drink, but don't make this the first and only port of call for fuelling your body.

Post Event
If you follow the above plan, hopefully you will finish the event feeling tired, but still well fed and well hydrated; without the stomach cramps that can occur from not eating enough proper food all day. The key after the event is recovery; your consumption of the protein / carbohydrate mix throughout the day will have already started the process, but immediately upon finishing aim to have a protein shake or milkshake, and then within an hour of finishing have a decent meal of solid food containing a good serving of protein. For more advice on recovery nutrition, have a read of my posts on Recovery. Don't forget to keep drinking and re-hydrating even after the event as well, your muscles need fluid to repair! That means have a few lime and sodas before hitting the hard stuff in the pub at the finish line!


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